It’s been a number of months and I’m still struggling to write down my impressions of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I mostly feel a murky sense of awe at the beautiful architecture and a mix of shame and distress over what kind of living conditions many of the people in the neighborhood deal with on a day to day basis.
In the places we encounter we all bring something to the table. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost six years now. It is both the richest and poorest place I’ve lived in. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and was taught that the Bay was beautiful, but LA was a dump. I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, and now that I’ve been in LA for awhile I feel a sense of ownership and pride and think I can finally call this sprawling metropolis my home and my city.
Downtown Los Angeles has its Skid Row. It’s a blurry line between bars with $12+ cocktails and industrial streets lined with tents and makeshift shelters. Well-dressed and high-heeled foodies and cocktail connosseurs cross paths with dishelved individuals who often seem to be aimlessly wandering the streets. Sometimes you get asked for change, sometimes someone from the tent side of town will try to start a conversation with you (that usually doesn’t make much sense), but as long as you mind your own business the vast majority of encounters with Skid Row residents are passive.
Los Angeles gets such a bad rap for its gang issues, its race riots, its Skid Row. I’d seen parts of Skid Row enough times at all hours of night and day, so I didn’t think seeing a neglected downtown core in another major city would be any kind of shock, but I think that’s the only word I can use.
I know Cincinnati is a Rust Belt city. I know Cincinnati has an important significance in the history of my Dad’s dad’s side of the family. I know when I visited suburban Cincinnati in 2006 all my relatives told me not to go downtown (they all now live in the suburban neighborhoods outside of downtown – no one lives in the city anymore). Of course that made me want to go even more.
When adult people are slumped over motionless in doorways, it’s easier to distance yourself; to make it a “us” and “them” situation. We all compartmentalize to some extent as a mental survival mechanism. The world is full of many things both inside and outside of our control and we place our thoughts and feelings in the bins they need to go in so that we can keep functioning within the narrow scope of our individual lives.
For months now I’ve placed Over-the-Rhine in its historical bin – a curious look into a past place where my ancestors existed. Neighborhood neglect has been both a blessing and a curse as many structures still exist, but many are also slowly crumbling away. Taking a walking tour was a great chance to get to walk the streets my ancestors walked and to see the buildings they saw. Place is a powerful component of the past. Getting to see the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood with my own two eyes and feet seemed like the next best thing to climbing in a time machine. But a very current place exists among the structures of a past time. While the buildings were neglected and forgotten, so too were the communities that came to live in Over-the-Rhine.
I think that was the biggest shock of the decayed downtown core. Most of the LA Skid Row individuals I’ve encountered are adults, while walking around Over-the-Rhine felt more like seeing the inside of a multigenerational community existing in spite of human and structural threats. A group of little kids waved at us from an upper story window, while a gangly woman with a beaten face walked over to a man in a doorway, and a buff weightlifter parked his car along the sidewalk to blast some tunes while he hefted big metal dumbbells on the strip of concrete between sidewalk and asphalt. This place is alive; people really live here. (And I don’t mean to knock LA’s Skid Row as a place where people don’t live – it just has a much more transient feel to it, unlike the very rooted feeling of Over-the-Rhine.)
At the beginning of this I mentioned “shame” as one of the feelings percolating in my mind. I’ve written about the idea of the legacy of historical shame in the past (Legacy Guilt), and I think I’ve come around to a good psychological place on personal genealogical issues. Despite this, I am still working on finding some level of acceptance in confronting bigger picture injustices that were created by past discrimination and neglect and are perpetuated today. Like dealing with my personal family history, the bigger family history of humanity (and American humanity in particular) is something that I can’t change.
Maybe at least increasing awareness is a good step in the right direction. It definitely opened my eyes and made me want to know more, to see more, to understand more. My inner optimist fell in love with the neighborhood and I feel hopeful that there is some sort of possible middle ground for Over-the-Rhine, where it can keep its roots but become a structurally and culturally safer place for the community to grow.
There are changes and movers and shakers working on the neighborhood, though there is always a fine line between saving buildings and bringing in money and pushing out those that live in the neighborhood. Can gentrification be a positive for everyone involved?